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1. Regular Expression Tutorial
In this tutorial, I will teach you all you need to know to be able to craft powerful time-saving regular expressions. I will start with the most basic concepts, so that you can follow this tutorial even if you know nothing at all about regular expressions yet. But I will not stop there. I will also explain how a regular expression engine works on the inside, and alert you at the consequences. This will help you to understand quickly why a particular regex does not do what you initially expected. It will save you lots of guesswork and head-scratching when you need to write more complex regexes.

What Regular Expressions Are Exactly - Terminology
Basically, a regular expression is a pattern describing a certain amount of text. Their name comes from the mathematical theory on which they are based. But we will not dig into that. Since most people including myself are lazy to type, you will usually find the name abbreviated to regex or regexp. I prefer regex, because it is easy to pronounce the plural "regexes". In this book, regular expressions are printed guillemots: «regex». They clearly separate the pattern from the surrounding text and punctuation. This first example is actually a perfectly valid regex. It is the most basic pattern, simply matching the literal text „regex”. A "match" is the piece of text, or sequence of bytes or characters that pattern was found to correspond to by the regex processing software. Matches are indicated by double quotation marks, with the left one at the base of the line. «\b[A-Z0-9._%-]+@[A-Z0-9._%-]+\.[A-Z0-9._%-]{2,4}\b» is a more complex pattern. It describes a series of letters, digits, dots, percentage signs and underscores, followed by an at sign, followed by another series of letters, digits, dots, percentage signs and underscores, finally followed by a single dot and between two and four letters. In other words: this pattern describes an email address. With the above regular expression pattern, you can search through a text file to find email addresses, or verify if a given string looks like an email address. In this tutorial, I will use the term "string" to indicate the text that I am applying the regular expression to. I will indicate strings using regular double quotes. The term “string” or “character string” is used by programmers to indicate a sequence of characters. In practice, you can use regular expressions with whatever data you can access using the application or programming language you are working with.

Different Regular Expression Engines
A regular expression “engine” is a piece of software that can process regular expressions, trying to match the pattern to the given string. Usually, the engine is part of a larger application and you do not access the engine directly. Rather, the application will invoke it for you when needed, making sure the right regular expression is applied to the right file or data. As usual in the software world, different regular expression engines are not fully compatible with each other. It is not possible to describe every kind of engine and regular expression syntax (or “flavor”) in this tutorial. I will focus on the regex flavor used by Perl 5, for the simple reason that this regex flavor is the most popular

40 one, and deservedly so. Many more recent regex engines are very similar, but not identical, to the one of Perl 5. Examples are the open source PCRE engine (used in many tools and languages like PHP), the .NET regular expression library, and the regular expression package included with version 1.4 and later of the Java JDK. I will point out to you whenever differences in regex flavors are important, and which features are specific to the Perl-derivatives mentioned above.

Give Regexes a First Try
You can easily try the following yourself in a text editor that supports regular expressions, such as EditPad Pro. If you do not have such an editor, you can download the free evaluation version of EditPad Pro to try this out. EditPad Pro's regex engine is fully functional in the demo version. As a quick test, copy and paste the text of this page into EditPad Pro. Then select Edit|Search and Replace from the menu. In the search pane that appears near the bottom, type in «regex» in the box labeled “Search Text”. Mark the “Regular expression” checkbox, unmark “All open documents” and mark “Start from beginning”. Then click the Search button and see how EditPad Pro's regex engine finds the first match. When “Start from beginning” is checked, EditPad Pro uses the entire file as the string to try to match the regex to. When the regex has been matched, EditPad Pro will automatically turn off “Start from beginning”. When you click the Search button again, the remainder of the file, after the highlighted match, is used as the string. When the regex can no longer match the remaining text, you will be notified, and “Start from beginning” is automatically turned on again. Now try to search using the regex «reg(ular expressions?|ex(p|es)?)». This regex will find all names, singular and plural, I have used on this page to say “regex”. If we only had plain text search, we would have needed 5 searches. With regexes, we need just one search. Regexes save you time when using a tool like EditPad Pro. If you are a programmer, your software will run faster since even a simple regex engine applying the above regex once will outperform a state of the art plain text search algorithm searching through the data five times. Regular expressions also reduce development time. With a regex engine, it takes only one line (e.g. in Perl, PHP, Java or .NET) or a couple of lines (e.g. in C using PCRE) of code to, say, check if the user's input looks like a valid email address.

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2. Literal Characters
The most basic regular expression consists of a single literal character, e.g.: «a». It will match the first occurrence of that character in the string. If the string is “Jack is a boy”, it will match the „a” after the “J”. The fact that this “a” is in the middle of the word does not matter to the regex engine. If it matters to you, you will need to tell that to the regex engine by using word boundaries. We will get to that later. This regex can match the second „a” too. It will only do so when you tell the regex engine to start searching through the string after the first match. In a text editor, you can do so by using its “Find Next” or “Search Forward” function. In a programming language, there is usually a separate function that you can call to continue searching through the string after the previous match. Similarly, the regex «cat» will match „cat” in “About cats and dogs”. This regular expression consists of a series of three literal characters. This is like saying to the regex engine: find a «c», immediately followed by an «a», immediately followed by a «t». Note that regex engines are case sensitive by default. «cat» does not match “Cat”, unless you tell the regex engine to ignore differences in case.

Special Characters
Because we want to do more than simply search for literal pieces of text, we need to reserve certain characters for special use. In the regex flavors discussed in this tutorial, there are 11 characters with special meanings: the opening square bracket «[», the backslash «\», the caret «^», the dollar sign «$», the period or dot «.», the vertical bar or pipe symbol «|», the question mark «?», the asterisk or star «*», the plus sign «+», the opening round bracket «(» and the closing round bracket «)». These special characters are often called “metacharacters”. If you want to use any of these characters as a literal in a regex, you need to escape them with a backslash. If you want to match „1+1=2”, the correct regex is «1\+1=2». Otherwise, the plus sign will have a special meaning. Note that «1+1=2», with the backslash omitted, is a valid regex. So you will not get an error message. But it will not match “1+1=2”. It would match „111=2” in “123+111=234”, due to the special meaning of the plus character. If you forget to escape a special character where its use is not allowed, such as in «+1», then you will get an error message. All other characters should not be escaped with a backslash. That is because the backslash is also a special character. The backslash in combination with a literal character can create a regex token with a special meaning. E.g. «\d» will match a single digit from 0 to 9.

Special Characters and Programming Languages
If you are a programmer, you may be surprised that characters like the single quote and double quote are not special characters. That is correct. When using a regular expression or grep tool like PowerGREP or the

42 search function of a text editor like EditPad Pro, you should not escape or repeat the quote characters like you do in a programming language. In your source code, you have to keep in mind which characters get special treatment inside strings by your programming language. That is because those characters will be processed by the compiler, before the regex library sees the string. So the regex «1\+1=2» must be written as "1\\+1=2" in C++ code. The C++ compiler will turn the escaped backslash in the source code into a single backslash in the string that is passed on to the regex library. To match „c:\temp”, you need to use the regex «c:\\temp». As a string in C++ source code, this regex becomes "c:\\\\temp". Four backslashes to match a single one indeed. See the tools and languages section in this book for more information on how to use regular expressions in various programming languages.

Non-Printable Characters
You can use special character sequences to put non-printable characters in your regular expression. «\t» will match a tab character (ASCII 0x09), «\r» a carriage return (0x0D) and «\n» a line feed (0x0A). Remember that Windows text files use “\r\n” to terminate lines, while UNIX text files use “\n”. You can include any character in your regular expression if you know its hexadecimal ASCII or ANSI code for the character set that you are working with. In the Latin-1 character set, the copyright symbol is character 0xA9. So to search for the copyright symbol, you can use «\xA9». Another way to search for a tab is to use «\x09». Note that the leading zero is required.

the engine is regex-directed. When applying a regex to a string. MySQL and Procmail. then it is text-directed. the engine knows the regex cannot be matched starting at the 4th character in the match. When applying «cat» to “He captured a catfish for his cat. it will try all possible permutations of the regex. The engine is "eager" to report a match. It will help you understand quickly why a particular regex does not do what you initially expected. So the regex engine tries to match the «c» with the “e”. „a”. You can do the test by applying the regex «regex|regex not» to the string “regex not”. So it will continue with the 5th: “a”. the engine will try to match the first token in the regex «c» to the first character in the match “H”.”. First Look at How a Regex Engine Works Internally Knowing how the regex engineworks will enable you to craft better regexes more easily. the engine will start at the first character of the string. The engine never proceeds beyond this point to see if there are any “better” matches. will the engine continue with the second character in the text. The first match is considered good enough. flex. lex. There are no other possible permutations of this regex. If the result is „regex not”. such as lazy quantifiers and backreferences.43 3. egrep. you can be certain the engine is regex-directed. This inside look may seem a bit long-winded at certain times. If backreferences and/or lazy quantifiers are available. because it merely consists of a sequence of literal characters. This succeeds too. «c» fails to match here and the engine carries on. Only if all possibilities have been tried and found to fail. No surprise that this kind of engine is more popular. . «c» matches „c”. But understanding how the regex engine works will enable you to use its full power and help you avoid common mistakes. All the regex flavors treated in this tutorial are based on regex-directed engines. as does matching the «c» with the space. The engine will then try to match the second token «a» to the 5th character. You can easily find out whether the regex flavor you intend to use has a text-directed or regex-directed engine. can only be implemented in regex-directed engines. The result is that the regex-directed engine will return the leftmost match. The engine then proceeds to attempt to match the remainder of the regex at character 15 and finds that «a» matches „a” and «t» matches „t”. in exactly the same order. respectively. If the resulting match is only „regex”. Jeffrey Friedl calls them DFA and NFA engines. there are a few versions of these tools that use a regex-directed engine. This fails too. At the 15th character in the match. This fails. There are two kinds of regular expression engines: text-directed engines. after introducing a new regex token. In this tutorial. Arriving at the 4th character in the match. It will therefore report the first three letters of catfish as a valid match. For awk and egrep. The reason behind this is that the regex-directed engine is “eager”. It will try all possible permutations of the regular expression at the first character. At that point. The Regex-Directed Engine Always Returns the Leftmost Match This is a very important point to understand: a regex-directed engine will always return the leftmost match. The entire regular expression could be matched starting at character 15. even if a “better” match could be found later. This is because certain very useful features. Again. But then. I will explain step by step how the regex engine actually processes that token. This will save you lots of guesswork and head-scratching when you need to write more complex regexes. «t» fails to match “p”. Notable tools that use text-directed engines are awk. Again. and regex-directed engines. «c» again matches „c”.

once you know how the engine works.44 In this first example of the engine's internals. In following examples. our regex engine simply appears to work like a regular text search routine. But they are always logical and predetermined. A text-directed engine would have returned the same result too. Some of the results may be surprising. However. it is important that you can follow the steps the engine takes in your mind. . the way the engine works will have a profound impact on the matches it will find.

«q[^u]» does not mean: “a q not followed by a u”. The order of the characters inside a character class does not matter. you need to use negative lookahead: «q(?!u)». «[0-9a-fxA-FX]» matches a hexadecimal digit or the letter X. case insensitively. the caret (^) and the hyphen (-). and only the q. The results are identical. Your regex will work fine if you escape the regular metacharacters inside a character class. You could use this in «gr[ae]y» to match either „gray” or „grey”. and do not need to be escaped by a backslash. Find an identifier in a programming language with «[A-Za-z_][A-Za-z_0-9]*».45 4. But we will get to that later. Indeed: the space will be part of the overall match. You can use more than one range. «[0-9a-fA-F]» matches a single hexadecimal digit. use «[ae]». Useful Applications Find a word. the order of the characters and the ranges does not matter. the backslash (\). Very useful if you do not know whether the document you are searching through is written in American or British English. The usual metacharacters are normal characters inside a character class. even if it is misspelled. Metacharacters Inside Character Classes Note that the only special characters or metacharacters inside a character class are the closing bracket (]). To search for a star or plus. . It will match the q and the space after the q in “Iraq is a country”. negated character classes also match (invisible) line break characters. Find a C-style hexadecimal number with «0[xX][A-Fa-f0-9]+». It is important to remember that a negated character class still must match a character. The result is that the character class will match any character that is not in the character class. If you want the regex to match the q. such as «sep[ae]r[ae]te» or «li[cs]en[cs]e». «gr[ae]y» will not match “graay”. because it is the “character that is not a u” that is matched by the negated character class in the above regexp. also called “character set”. A character class matches only a single character. Again. You can combine ranges and single characters. but doing so significantly reduces readability. It means: “a q followed by a character that is not a u”. in both strings. you can tell the regex engine to match only one out of several characters. Negated Character Classes Typing a caret after the opening square bracket will negate the character class. use «[+*]». If you want to match an a or an e. «[0-9]» matches a single digit between 0 and 9. Character Classes or Character Sets With a "character class". Unlike the dot. Simply place the characters you want to match between square brackets. You can use a hyphen inside a character class to specify a range of characters. “graey” or any such thing. It will not match the q in the string “Iraq”.

Negated Shorthand Character Classes The above three shorthands also have negated versions. You can put the closing bracket right after the opening bracket. rarely used non-printable characters such as vertical tab and form feed. In all flavors. it will include «[A-Za-z]». Both «[-x]» and «[x-]» match an x or a hyphen. The hyphen can be included right after the opening bracket. To include a caret. it also includes a carriage return or a line feed as in «[ \t\r\n]». place it anywhere except right after the opening bracket. since it improves readability. Exactly which characters it matches differs between regex flavors. The best way to find out is to do a couple of tests with the regex flavor you are using. while the latter matches „1” (one). «[\s\d]» matches a single character that is either whitespace or a digit. «\s\d» matches a whitespace character followed by a digit. «\d» is short for «[0-9]». Again. or right after the negating caret. «\w» stands for “word character”. it includes «[ \t]». which characters this actually includes. If you are using the Cyrillic script. or by placing them in a position where they do not take on their special meaning. The closing bracket (]). or right before the closing bracket.46 To include a backslash as a character without any special meaning inside a character class. «\W» is short for «[^\w]» and «\S» is the equivalent of «[^\s]». I recommend the latter method. In most flavors. In most. Shorthand Character Classes Since certain character classes are used often. characters with diacritics used in languages such as French and Spanish will be included. for example. «[\\x]» matches a backslash or an x. Shorthand character classes can be used both inside and outside the square brackets. . «[x^]» matches an x or a caret. the former regex will match „ 2” (space two). «[]x]» matches a closing bracket or an x. Some flavors include additional. That is: «\s» will match a space or a tab. a series of shorthand character classes are available. the caret (^) and the hyphen (-) can be included by escaping them with a backslash. «\s» stands for “whitespace character”. «\D» is the same as «[^\d]». or the negating caret. In some flavors. you can see the characters matched by «\w» in PowerGREP when using the Western script. In EditPad Pro. «[^]x]» matches any character that is not a closing bracket. Russian characters will be included. the actual character range depends on the script you have chosen in Options|Font. In all flavors discussed in this tutorial. depends on the regex flavor. you have to escape it with another backslash. When applied to “1 + 2 = 3”. the underscore and digits are also included. etc. word characters from other languages may also match. If you are using the Western script. In the screen shot. and is equivalent to «[0-9a-fA-F]». «[\da-fA-F]» matches a hexadecimal digit.

Looking Inside The Regex Engine As I already said: the order of the characters inside a character class does not matter. But the engine simply did not get that far. the leftmost match was returned. digit. and whitespace is not a digit. I did not yet explain how character classes work inside the regex engine. however. When the engine arrives at the 13th character. The engine will fail to match «g» at every step. So it will continue with the other option. If you do not want that. «gr[ae]y» will match „grey” in “Is his hair grey or gray?”. because that is the leftmost match. which matches the next character in the text. Let us take a look at that first. but not “8”. „g” is matched. you will need to use backreferences. We already saw how the engine applies a regex consisting only of literal characters. or is not whitespace. The next token in the regex is the literal «r». The engine has found a complete match with the text starting at character 13. will match any character that is either not a digit. I will explain how it applies a regex that has more than one permutation. The character class gives the engine two options: match «a» or match «e». rather than the class. But because we are using a regex-directed engine. The latter will match any character that is not a digit or whitespace. So the third token. you will repeat the entire character class. and continue with the next character in the string. and „gray” could have been matched in the string. The former. it must continue trying to match all the other permutations of the regex pattern before deciding that the regex cannot be matched with the text starting at character 13. it will match „3333” in the middle of this string. If you want to repeat the matched character. «[ae]» is attempted at the next character in the text (“e”). Below. even though we put the «a» first in the character class. «([09])\1+» will match „222” but not “837”. When applied to the string “833337”. and not just the character that it matched. and find that «e» matches „e”. Repeating Character Classes If you repeat a character class by using the «?». . you need to use lookahead and lookbehind. That is: «gr[ae]y» can match both „gray” and „grey”. «*» or «+» operators. Nothing noteworthy happens for the first twelve characters in the string. The engine will then try to match the remainder of the regex with the text. It will first attempt to match «a». The last regex token is «y». So it will match „x”. Because a digit is not whitespace. and fail. because another equally valid match was found to the left of it. «[\D\S]» will match any character. and look no further. But I digress. It will return „grey” as the match result.47 Be careful when using the negated shorthands inside square brackets. whitespace or otherwise. «[\D\S]» is not the same as «[^\d\s]». which can be matched with the following character as well. The regex «[0-9]+» can match „837” as well as „222”. Again.

Singleline.NET framework.]\d\d[. In this match. I will illustrate this with a simple example. Other languages and regex libraries have adopted Perl's terminology.. it is also the most commonly misused metacharacter. The first tools that used regular expressions were line-based. without caring what that character is. «\d\d[. In all regex flavors discussed in this tutorial. If you are new to regular expressions. the mode where the dot also matches newlines is called "single-line mode"./. the string could never contain newlines. so the dot could never match them. the dot or period is one of the most commonly used metacharacters. The dot matches a single character. the dot is short for the negated character class «[^\n]» (UNIX regex flavors) or «[^\r\n]» (Windows regex flavors). space. but we want to leave the user the choice of date separators. and the second matched „7”. . Modern tools and languages can apply regular expressions to very large strings or even entire files. you simply tick the checkbox labeled “dot matches newline”. “regex”. Multi-line mode only affects anchors. So by default. Remember that the dot is not a metacharacter inside a character class. RegexOptions. All regex flavors discussed here have an option to make the dot match all characters. It will match a date like „02/12/03” just fine.Singleline).]\d\d» is a better solution. so we do not need to escape it with a backslash. This is a bit unfortunate. the first dot matched „5”. EditPad Pro or PowerGREP. such as in Regex. This regex allows a dash. Unfortunately. you activate this mode by specifying RegexOptions. They would read a file line by line. The problem is that the regex will also match in cases where it should not match. and apply the regular expression separately to each line. When using the regex classes of the . and everything will match just fine when you test the regex on valid data.\d\d. Put in a dot. The only exception are newlinecharacters. Seems fine at first. Let's say we want to match a date in mm/dd/yy format. You can activate single-line mode by adding an s after the regex code. In RegexBuddy. activating single-line mode has no effect other than making the dot match newlines. Obviously not what we intended. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP. and single-line mode only affects the dot. because it is easy to mix up this term with “multi-line mode”. In Perl.48 5. This exception exists mostly because of historic reasons. some of these cases may not be so obvious at first. please give it a clearer label like was done in RegexBuddy. dot and forward slash as date separators. The effect is that with these tools.\d\d». It allows you to be lazy. The quick solution is «\d\d./. like this: m/^regex$/s. the dot will not match a newline character by default. So if you expose this option to your users. Use The Dot Sparingly The dot is a very powerful regex metacharacter. In all programming languages and regex libraries I know. The Dot Matches (Almost) Any Character In regular expressions. including newlines.Match(“string”. Trouble is: „02512703” is also considered a valid date by this regular expression.

We want any number of characters that are not double quotes or newlines between the quotes. Please respond. Definitely not what we intended. So the proper regex is «"[^"\r\n]*"». it has to be perfect.49 This regex is still far from perfect./. Suppose you want to match a double-quoted string. it will match „“string”” just fine. You can find a better regex to match dates in the example section. we have a problem with “string one” and “string two”. If you test this regex on “Put a “string” between double quotes”. including zero.]\d\d» is a step ahead. Our original definition of a double-quoted string was faulty. The dot matches any character. In the date-matching example. we improved our regex by replacing the dot with a character class. «[0-1]\d[. .*"» seems to do the trick just fine. Here. The regex matches „“string one” and “string two””. but the warning is important enough to mention it here as well. and the star allows the dot to be repeated any number of times. so «". though it will still match „19/39/99”. I will illustrate with an example. Sounds easy. If you are parsing data files from a known source that generates its files in the same way every time. If you are validating user input. It matches „99/99/99” as a valid date. The reason for this is that the star is greedy. Use Negated Character Sets Instead of the Dot I will explain this in depth when I present you the repeat operators star and plus.” Ouch. we will do the same. our last attempt is probably more than sufficient to parse the data without errors. We do not want any number of any character between the quotes. How perfect you want your regex to be depends on what you want to do with it. We can have any number of any character between the double quotes. Now go ahead and test it on “Houston.][0-3]\d[/.

and regex tools like PowerGREP. Applying «^a» to “abc” matches „a”. putting one in a regex will cause the regex engine to try to match a single character. «$» matches right after the last character in the string. because the «b» cannot be matched right after the start of the string. I have explained literal characters and character classes. Handy use of alternation and /g allows us to do this in a single line of code. it is good practice to trim leading and trailing whitespace.. “regex”. Anchors are a different breed. They can be used to “anchor” the regex match at a certain position. as well as after each line break (between “\n” and “s”).Match(“string”. and “end of string” must be matched right after it. all the regex engines discussed in this tutorial have the option to expand the meaning of both anchors. while «a$» does not match at all. In both cases. It is easy for the user to accidentally type in a space. the entire string must consist of digits for «^\d+$» to be able to match. So before validating input. Similarly. In text editors like EditPad Pro or GNU Emacs. . because «\d+» matches the 4. Instead. the line break will also be stored in the variable. «^» can then match at the start of the string (before the “f” in the above string). rather than the entire string.Multiline). you do this by adding an m after the regex code. using anchors is very important. In . «^\s+» matches leading whitespace and «\s+$» matches trailing whitespace. Likewise. It is traditionally called "multi-line mode". the anchors match before and after newlines when you specify RegexOptions. you could use $input =~ s/^\s+|\s+$//g. Using ^ and $ as Start of Line and End of Line Anchors If you have a string consisting of multiple lines. In Perl. like this: m/^regex$/m. When Perl reads from a line from a text file. it is often desirable to work with lines. In every programming language and regex library I know. Start of String and End of String Anchors Thus far.50 6. it will accept the input even if the user entered “qsdf4ghjk”. The correct regex to use is «^\d+$». rather than short strings. «^b» will not match “abc” at all. In Perl.Multiline. If you use the code if ($input =~ m/\d+/) in a Perl script to see if the user entered an integer number. matched by «^». Because “start of string” must be matched before the match of «\d+». and also before every line break (between “e” and “\n”). «$» will still match at the end of the string (after the last “e”). They do not match any character at all. RegexOptions. See below for the inside view of the regex engine. like “first line\nsecond line” (where \n indicates a line break). «c$» matches „c” in “abc”. such as in Regex. they match a position before. you have to explicitly activate this extended functionality.NET. the caret and dollar always match at the start and end of each line. The caret «^» matches the position before the first character in the string. Useful Applications When using regular expressions in a programming language to validate user input. after or between characters. This makes sense because those applications are designed to work with entire files. Therefore.

Replace method will remove the regex match from the string. These two tokens never match at line breaks. we can easily do this with Dim Quoted as String = Regex. it is common to prepend a “greater than” symbol and a space to each line of the quoted message. «\A[a-z]+\z» does not match “joe\n”. and after each newline. and insert the replacement string (greater than symbol and a space). In email. If the string ends with a line break. . the resulting string will end with a line break. the engine does not try to match it with the character. the regex engine does not advance to the next character in the string. «^» indeed matches the position before “7”. which is not matched by the character class. there is one exception. matching only a position can be very useful. Using «^\d*$» to test if the user entered a number (notice the use of the star instead of the plus). The engine then advances to the next regex token: «4». This is true in all regex flavors discussed in this tutorial. would cause the script to accept an empty string as a valid input. and the replacement string is inserted there. rather than matching a character. Strings Ending with a Line Break Even though «\Z» and «$» only match at the end of the string (when the option for the caret and dollar to match at embedded line breaks is off). Likewise. When applied to this string. The Regex. Depending on the situation. As usual. Since the match does not include any characters. Since this token is a zero-width token.NET and PCRE. use «\z» (lower case z instead of upper case Z). Since the previous token was zero-width. so the regex «^» matches at the start of the quoted message. but rather with the position before the character that the regex engine has reached so far. There are no other permutations of the . If you only want a match at the absolute very end of the string. nothing is deleted. Reading a line from a file with the text “joe” results in the string “joe\n”.NET. In Perl. "^". just like we want it. rather than at the very end of the string. both «^[a-z]+$» and «\A[a-z]+\Z» will match „joe”. Zero-Length Matches We saw that the anchors match at a position. when reading a line from a file. See below. and is copied by many regex flavors. even when you turn on “multiline mode”. However. for example. «\Z» only ever matches at the end of the string. In VB. «\z» matches after the line break. "> ". «4» is a literal character. the regex engine starts at the first character: “7”. «\A» and «\Z» only match at the start and the end of the entire file. However.Multiline).51 Permanent Start of String and End of String Anchors «\A» only ever matches at the start of the string. The first token in the regular expression is «^». This means that when a regex only consists of one or more anchors. RegexOptions. In EditPad Pro and PowerGREP. it can result in a zero-length match.Replace(Original. which does not match “7”. then «\Z» and «$» will match at the position before that line break. the match does include a starting position. This “enhancement” was introduced by Perl. Looking Inside the Regex Engine Let's see what happens when we try to match «^4$» to “749\n486\n4” (where \n represents a newline character) in multi-line mode. this can be very useful or undesirable. It remains at “7”. including Java. where the caret and dollar always match at the start and end of lines. We are using multi-line mode.

the engine has found a successful match: the last „4” in the string. . As we will see later. So the engine arrives at «$». If you would query the engine for the length of the match. Finally. and that character is not a newline. It must be either a newline. The first token in the regex is «^». Since that is the case after the example. The next token is «\d*». the entire regex has matched the empty string. and that character is not a newline.MatchPosition] may cause an access violation or segmentation fault. and the void after the string. and the current character is advanced to the very last position in the string: the void after the string. the dollar matches successfully. It is zero-width. and fails again. Again. “8”. optional. Previously. If you would query the engine for the character position. and that character is not a newline. the regex engine advances to the next regex token. it would return the length of the string if string indices are zero-based. Another Inside Look Earlier I mentioned that «^\d*$» would successfully match an empty string. because it is preceded by a newline character. There is only one “character” position in an empty string: the void after the string. The current regex token is advanced to «$». Since «$» was the last token in the regex. No regex token that needs a character to match can match here. so the engine starts again with the first regex token. the regex engine arrives at the second “4” in the string. It matches the position before the void after the string.52 regex. and the mighty dollar is a strange beast. one of the star's effects is that it makes the «\d». Again. Then. At this point. «4» matches „4”. The «^» can match at the position before the “4”. or the void after the string. and the engine advances both the regex token and the string character. It does not matter that this “character” is the void after the string. That fails. so the engine continues at the next character. “9”. but the star turns the failure of the «\d» into a zero-width success. In fact. Now the engine attempts to match «$» at the position before (indeed: before) the “8”. «4». for «$» to match the position before the current character. This can also happen with «^» and «^$» if the last character in the string is a newline. After that. With success. it would return zero. Let's see why. «^» cannot match at the position before the 4. where the caret does not match. We already saw that those match. the dollar will check the current character. This time. The next attempt. What you have to watch out for is that String[Regex. Not even a negated character class. in this case. The engine will try to match «\d» with the void after the string. because it is preceded by the void before the string. the engine must try to match the first token again. it was successfully matched at the second “4”. However. Yet again. because MatchPosition can point to the void after the string. because this position is preceded by a character. Caution for Programmers A regular expression such as «$» all by itself can indeed match after the string. The engine continues at “9”. This position is preceded by a character. we are trying to match a dollar sign. The dollar cannot match here. the position before “\n” is preceded by a character. at “\n”. or the length+1 if string indices are one-based in your programming language. and the engine reports success. The engine will proceed with the next regex token. but does not advance the character position in the string. at the next character: “4”. so it will try to match the position before the current character. the engine successfully matches «4» with „4”. Same at the six and the newline. without advancing the position in the string. also fails. the regex engine tries to match the first token at the third “4” in the string.

The engine starts with the first token «\b» at the first character “T”. the engine continues with the «i» which does not match with the space. if the last character is a word character. After the last character in the string. So saying "«\b» matches before and after an alphanumeric sequence“ is more exact than saying ”before and after a word". Between a non-word character and a word character following right after the non-word character. Simply put: «\b» allows you to perform a “whole words only” search using a regular expression in the form of «\bword\b». It matches at a position that is called a “word boundary”. the position before the character is inspected. This match is zero-length. «\b» matches here. Effectively. because the T is a word character and the character before it is the void before the start of the string. The engine continues with the next token: the literal «i». All non-word characters are always matched by «\W». Between a word character and a non-word character following right after the word character. . The next character in the string is a space. Again.53 7. This regex will not match “44 sheets of a4”. In Perl and the other regex flavors discussed in this tutorial. Word Boundaries The metacharacter «\b» is an anchor like the caret and the dollar sign. So «\b4\b» can be used to match a 4 that is not part of a larger number. Since this token is zero-length. so the engine retries the first token at the next character position. The engine does not advance to the next character in the string. This is because any position between characters can never be both at the start and at the end of a word. It cannot match between the “h” and the “i” either. but all word characters are always matched by the short-hand character class «\w». there is only one metacharacter that matches both before a word and after a word. There are four different positions that qualify as word boundaries: • • • • Before the first character in the string. Negated Word Boundary «\B» is the negated version of «\b». A “word character” is a character that can be used to form words. if the first character is a word character. «\B» matches at any position between two word characters as well as at any position between two non-word characters. «\B» matches at every position where «\b» does not. and neither between the “i” and the “s”. All characters that are not “word characters” are “non-word characters”. Using only one operator makes things easier for you. because the previous regex token was zero-width. «\b» cannot match at the position between the “T” and the “h”. and the preceding character is. «\b» matches here because the space is not a word character. Looking Inside the Regex Engine Let's see what happens when we apply the regex «\bis\b» to the string “This island is beautiful”. Note that «\w» usually also matches digits. The exact list of characters is different for each regex flavor. «i» does not match “T”.

54 Advancing a character and restarting with the first regex token. skipping the two earlier occurrences of the characters i and s. the engine tries to match the second «\b» at the position before the “l”. Now. the regex engine finds that «i» matches „i” and «s» matches „s”. it would have matched the „is” in “This”. The engine has successfully matched the word „is” in our string. The last token in the regex. But «\b» matches at the position before the third “i” in the string. . «\b» matches between the space and the second “i” in the string. It matches there. Again. «\b». and finds that «i» matches „i” and «s» matches «s». the «\b» fails to match and continues to do so until the second space is reached. The engine reverts to the start of the regex and advances one character to the “s” in “island”. Continuing. The engine continues. If we had used the regular expression «is». but matching the «i» fails. and the character before it is. also matches at the position before the second space in the string because the space is not a word character. This fails because this position is between two word characters.

so the entire regex has successfully matched „Set” in “SetValue”. «SetValue» will be attempted before «Set». Because the regex engine is eager. That is. The match succeeds. then either “cat” or “dog”. At this point. The next token. The alternation operator has the lowest precedence of all regex operators. Since all options have the same end. it tells the regex engine to match either everything to the left of the vertical bar. Set or SetValue. If you want more options. If we want to improve the first example to match whole words only. «e» matches „e”. «G». Suppose you want to use a regex to match a list of function names in a programming language: Get. We do not want to match Set or SetValue if the string is “SetValueFunction”. there are no other tokens in the regex outside the alternation. and then another word boundary. “S”. being the second «G» in the regex. If you want to search for the literal text «cat» or «dog». GetValue. It will stop searching as soon as it finds a valid match. we can optimize this further to «\b(Get|Set)(Value)?\b». The match fails again. The regex engine starts at the first token in the regex. «SetValue» will be attempted before «Set». and at the first character in the string. and the engine will match the entire string. In this example. You can use alternation to match a single regular expression out of several possible regular expressions. Contrary to what we intended. However. we would need to use «\b(cat|dog)\b». Alternation with The Vertical Bar or Pipe Symbol I already explained how you can use character classes to match a single character out of several possible characters. If we had omitted the round brackets. There are several solutions. as well as the next token in the regex. the regex engine studied the entire regular expression before starting. The obvious solution is «Get|GetValue|Set|SetValue».55 8. «t» matches „t”. separate both options with a vertical bar or pipe symbol: «cat|dog». So it knows that this regular expression uses alternation. Remember That The Regex Engine Is Eager I already explained that the regex engine is eager. Let's see how this works out when the string is “SetValue”. The consequence is that in certain situations. simply expand the list: «cat|dog|mouse|fish». you will need to use round brackets for grouping. Because the question mark is greedy. it considers the entire alternation to have been successfully matched as soon as one of the options has. the order of the alternatives matters. This tells the regex engine to find a word boundary. So it continues with the second option. the regex engine would have searched for “a word boundary followed by cat”. The next token is the first «S» in the regex. One option is to take into account that the regex engine is eager. The match fails. We could also combine the four options into two and use the question mark to make part of them optional: «Get(Value)?|Set(Value)?». or everything to the right of the vertical bar. and the engine continues with the next character in the string. and change the order of the options. and that the entire regex has not failed yet. "dog followed by a word boundary. So the solution is «\b(Get|GetValue| Set|SetValue)\b» or «\b(Get(Value)?|Set(Value)?)\b». the third option in the alternation has been successfully matched. Alternation is similar. The best option is probably to express the fact that we only want to match complete words. If you want to limit the reach of the alternation. If we use «GetValue|Get|SetValue|Set». The next token in the regex is the «e» after the «S» that just successfully matched. . the regex did not match the entire string. or.

The engine will always try to match that part. You can write a regular expression that matches many alternatives by including more than one question mark. the engine can only conclude that the entire regular expression cannot be matched starting at the „c” in “colonel”. Therefore. Optional Items The question mark makes the preceding token in the regular expression optional. This fails. «Feb(ruary)? 23(rd)?» matches „February 23rd”. turn off the greediness) by putting a second question mark after the first. Again: no problem. You can make several tokens optional by grouping them together using round brackets. But this fails to match “n” as well. the engine will skip ahead to the next regex token: «r». or do not try to match it. «l» matches „l” and another «o» matches „o”. The first position where it matches successfully is the „c” in “colonel”. The question mark gives the regex engine two choices: try to match the part the question mark applies to. Important Regex Concept: Greediness With the question mark. the match will always be „Feb 23rd” and not „Feb 23”. The engine continues. Only if this causes the entire regular expression to fail. However. This fails. the question mark tells the regex engine that failing to match «u» is acceptable. and placing the question mark after the closing bracket. «c» will match with the „c” in “color”. will the engine try ignoring the part the question mark applies to. Therefore. . E. I have introduced the first metacharacter that is greedy. the engine starts again trying to match «c» to the first o in “colonel”. I will say a lot more about greediness when discussing the other repetition operators. and finds that «o» matches „o”. and «o». „Feb 23rd” and „Feb 23”. Then the engine checks whether «u» matches “n”.g.g. The first token in the regex is the literal «c». Now the engine checks whether «u» matches “r”. „February 23”. «l» and «o» match the following characters. E.e. The effect is that if you apply the regex «Feb 23(rd)?» to the string “Today is Feb 23rd. Looking Inside The Regex Engine Let's apply the regular expression «colou?r» to the string “The colonel likes the color green”. After a series of failures.: «colou?r» matches both „colour” and „color”.: «Nov(ember)?» will match „Nov” and „November”. This matches „r” and the engine reports that the regex successfully matched „color” in our string. Now. The question mark allows the engine to continue with «r». 2003”. You can make the question mark lazy (i.56 9.

Watch Out for The Greediness! Suppose you want to use a regex to match an HTML tag. and «{1. When matching „<HTML>”. Obviously not what we wanted. The second character class matches a letter or digit.}» is the same as «+». But it does not. After that. So our regex will match a tag like „<B>”. and max is an integer equal to or greater than min indicating the maximum number of matches. Like the plus. . have an additional repetition operator that allows you to specify how many times a token can be repeated. The sharp brackets are literals.max}. The star repeats the second character class. The asterisk or star tells the engine to attempt to match the preceding token zero or more times. The star will cause the second character class to be repeated three times. They will be surprised when they test it on a string like “This is a <EM>first</EM> test”. it is an HTML tag.4}\b» matches a number between 100 and 99999. it will go back to the plus. Notice the use of the word boundaries. where min is a positive integer number indicating the minimum number of matches. That is. It tells the engine to attempt match the preceding token zero times or once.57 10. so the regular expression does not need to exclude any invalid use of sharp brackets. like those discussed in this tutorial. and proceed with the remainder of the regex. Let's take a look inside the regex engine to see in detail how this works and why this causes our regex to fail. The syntax is {min. matching „T”. The reason is that the plus is greedy.}» is the same as «*». If the comma is present but max is omitted. «<[A-Za-z][A-Za-z0-9]*>» matches an HTML tag without any attributes. Most people new to regular expressions will attempt to use «<. The plus tells the engine to attempt to match the preceding token once or more.+>». I will present you with two possible solutions. You might expect the regex to match „<EM>” and when continuing after that match. the star and the repetition using curly braces are greedy. which is not a valid HTML tag. I could also have used «<[A-Za-z0-9]+>». Because we used the star. make it give up the last iteration. Repetition with Star and Plus I already introduced one repetition operator or quantifier: the question mark. You know that the input will be a valid HTML file. „M” and „L” with each step. in effect making it optional. the maximum number of matches is infinite. The first character class matches a letter. So «{0. the plus causes the regex engine to repeat the preceding token as often as possible. I did not. The regex will match „<EM>first</EM>”. it's OK if the second character class matches nothing. But this regex may be sufficient if you know the string you are searching through does not contain any such invalid tags. will the regex engine backtrack. because this regex would match „<1>”. Limiting Repetition Modern regex flavors. «\b[1-9][09]{2. „</EM>”. If it sits between sharp brackets. That is. Only if that causes the entire regex to fail. You could use «\b[1-9][0-9]{3}\b» to match a number between 1000 and 9999. Omitting both the comma and max tells the engine to repeat the token exactly min times. the first character class will match „H”.

there is a better option than making the plus lazy. Now. Only at this point does the regex engine continue with the next token: «>». The reason why this is better is because of the backtracking. You can do that by putting a question markbehind the plus in the regex.+» has matched „<EM>first</EM> test” and the engine has arrived at the end of the string. Let's have another look inside the regex engine. The total match so far is reduced to „<EM>first</EM> te”. and then continue trying the remainder of the regex. the engine will backtrack. «<» matches the first „<” in the string. Again. But «>» still cannot match. The requirement has been met. The plus is greedy. the backtracking will force the lazy plus to expand rather than reduce its reach. The dot will match all remaining characters in the string. We can use a greedy plus and a negated character class: «<[^>]+>». So our example becomes «<. So the engine continues backtracking until the match of «. This tells the regex engine to repeat the dot as few times as possible. the engine will repeat the dot as many times as it can. the engine has to backtrack for each character in the HTML tag that it is trying to match. You should see the problem by now. «>» cannot match here. «>» can match the next character in the string. This fails. So the match of «. It will not continue backtracking further to see if there is another possible match. This is a literal.+» is reduced to „EM>first</EM> tes”. Laziness Instead of Greediness The quick fix to this problem is to make the plus lazy instead of greedy. The next token is the dot. which matches any character except newlines.) Rather than admitting failure. So far. this time repeated by a lazy plus. So the match of «. no backtracking occurs at all when the string contains valid HTML code. the first place where it will match is the first „<” in the string. and the dot is repeated once more. You can do the same with the star. As we already know. So the engine matches the dot with „E”. and the engine tries again to continue with «>». this is the leftmost longest match. The engine remembers that the plus has repeated the dot more often than is required. «<. the curly braces and the question mark itself. The dot matches the „>”. When using the negated character class. It will reduce the repetition of the plus by one. (Remember that the plus requires the dot to match only once. The minimum is one. It will report the first valid match it finds. „>” is matched successfully. . Because of greediness. An Alternative to Laziness In this case. The next token in the regex is still «>». When using the lazy plus. The dot matches „E”.+» is reduced to „EM>first</EM”. The dot is repeated by the plus. The engine reports that „<EM>” has been successfully matched. The next token is the dot. and the engine continues with «>» and “M”. But now the next character in the string is the last “t”. Remember that the regex engine is eager to return a match. Therefore. the engine will backtrack.58 Looking Inside The Regex Engine The first token in the regex is «<». That's more like it.+?>». The next character is the “>”. The engine reports that „<EM>first</EM>” has been successfully matched. The last token in the regex has been matched. causing the engine to backtrack further. Now. these cannot match. The last token in the regex has been matched. But this time. and the engine continues repeating the dot. The dot fails when the engine has reached the void after the end of the string. Again.+» is expanded to „EM”. „M” is matched. Again. so the regex continues to try to match the dot with the next character.

. You will not notice the difference when doing a single search in a text editor.59 Backtracking slows down the regex engine. Finally. but they also do not support lazy repetition operators. Text-directed engines do not backtrack. remember that this tutorial only talks about regex-directed engines. or perhaps in a custom syntax coloring scheme for EditPad Pro. But you will save plenty of CPU cycles when using such a regex is used repeatedly in a tight loop in a script that you are writing. They do not get the speed penalty.

What you can do with it afterwards. If you do not use the backreference. and curly braces are used by a special repetition operator. This allows you to apply a regex operator. and the other letters in lowercase. Use Round Brackets for Grouping By placing part of a regular expression inside round brackets or parentheses. or afterwards. Note the question mark after the opening bracket is unrelated to the question mark at the end of the regex. and “Pro version” in case „EditPad Pro” was matched. Round Brackets Create a Backreference Besides grouping part of a regular expression together. How to Use Backreferences Backreferences allow you to reuse part of the regex match. The regex «Set(Value)?» matches „Set” or „SetValue”. In EditPad Pro or PowerGREP. a repetition operator. there is no confusion between the question mark as an operator to make a token optional. you can group that part of the regular expression together. you can use the backreference in the replacement text during a search-and-replace operation by typing \1 (backslash one) into the replacement text. In the first case. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP have a unique feature that allows you to change the case of the backreference. The question mark and the colon after the opening round bracket are the special syntax that you can use to tell the regex engine that this pair of brackets should not create a backreference. You can reuse it inside the regular expression (see below). you can optimize this regular expression into «Set(?:Value)?». you can speed things up by using non-capturing parentheses. In the second case. the first backreference will be empty. and the question mark as a character to change the properties of a pair of round brackets. Note that only round brackets can be used for grouping. . slows down the regex engine because it has more work to do. Remembering part of the regex match in a backreference. Square brackets define a character class. round brackets also create a “backreference”. Finally. \I1 inserts it with the first letter of each word capitalized.60 11. That is. depends on the tool you are using. because it did not match anything. the actual replacement will be “Lite version” in case „EditPad Lite” was matched. at the expense of making your regular expression slightly harder to read.g. e. Therefore. unless you use non-capturing parentheses. A backreference stores the part of the string matched by the part of the regular expression inside the parentheses. the first backreference will contain „Value”. I have already used round brackets for this purpose in previous topics throughout this tutorial. \L1 in lowercase and \F1 with the first character in uppercase and the remainder in lowercase. If you do not use the backreference. That question mark is the regex operator that makes the previous token optional. \U1 inserts the first backreference in uppercase. The colon indicates that the change we want to make is to turn off capturing the backreference. This operator cannot appear after an opening round bracket. to the entire group. If you searched for «EditPad (Lite|Pro)» and use “\1 version” as the replacement. because an opening bracket by itself is not a valid regex token.

but also during the match. $2. \0 cannot be used inside a regex. which capture the string matched by «[A-Z][A-Z0-9]» into the first backreference. only in the replacement. You can reuse the same backreference more than once. it will either give an error message. To figure out the number of a particular backreference. The «/» before it is simply the forward slash in the closing HTML tag that we are trying to match. If a backreference was not used in a particular match attempt (such as in the first example where the question mark made the first backreference optional). This fact means that non-capturing parentheses have another benefit: you can insert them into a regular expression without changing the numbers assigned to the backreferences. which is a collection of Group objects. because that would force the engine to continuously keep an extra copy of the entire regex match. or it will fail to match anything without an error message. In Perl.*?</\1>». In the replacement text. to access the part of the string matched by the backreference. This object has a property called Groups. The first bracket starts backreference number one. „bxbxb” and „cxcxc”.61 Regex libraries in programming languages also provide access to the backreference. etc. Depending on your regex flavor. «([a-c])x\1x\1» will match „axaxa”. A backreference cannot be used inside itself. you can use the entire regex match in the replacement text during a search and replace operation by typing \0 (backslash zero) into the replacement text. Non-capturing parentheses are not counted. $2. and the text in between. Here's how: «<([A-Z][A-Z09]*)[^>]*>. scan the regular expression from left to right and count the opening round brackets. . In Perl. you can use MyMatch. In . In EditPad Pro or PowerGREP. you can use the Match object that is returned by the Match method of the Regex class. «([abc]\1)» will not work. Using an empty backreference in the regex is perfectly fine.NET (dot net) Regex class also has a method Replace that can do a regex-based search-and-replace on a string. By putting the opening tag into a backreference. This regex contains only one pair of parentheses. to insert backreferences. Suppose you want to match a pair of opening and closing HTML tags. the item with index zero holds the entire regex match. Using backreference zero is more efficient than putting an extra pair of round brackets around the entire regex. etc. the second number two. the magic variable $& holds the entire regex match. This can be very useful when modifying a complex regular expression.Value. To get the string matched by the third backreference in C#.Groups[3]. Therefore. you can use $1. Using Backreferences in The Regular Expression Backreferences can not only be used after a match has been found. The .NET (dot net) where backreferences are made available as an array or numbered list. The Entire Regex Match As Backreference Zero Certain tools make the entire regex match available as backreference zero. etc.NET (dot net). Libraries like . you can use the magic variables $1. it is simply empty. we can reuse the name of the tag for the closing tag. It will simply be replaced with nothingness. This backreference is reused with «\1» (backslash one).

At this point. These obviously match. The next token is «\1». That is because in the second regex. If a new match is found by capturing parentheses. and not «B». because of the star. Each time. and the dot consumes the third “<” in the string. After storing the backreference. «<» matches „<” and «/» matches „/”. This also means that «([abc]+)=\1» will match „cab=cab”. and the next token is «/» which matches “/”. The engine advances to «[A-Z0-9]» and “>”. The backtracking continues until the dot has consumed „<I>bold italic”. The reason is that when the engine arrives at «\1». The backreference still holds „B”. At this point. Though both successfully match „cab”. The position in the string remains at “>”. and that «([abc])+=\1» will not. Backtracking continues again until the dot has consumed „<I>bold italic</I>”. This step crosses the closing bracket of the first pair of capturing parentheses. The engine does not substitute the backreference in the regular expression. the engine proceeds with the match attempt. so „B” it is. and the engine is forced to backtrack to the dot. This means that if the engine had backtracked beyond the first pair of capturing parentheses before arriving the second time at «\1». «[^>]» does not match „>”. so the engine again takes note of the available backtracking position and advances to «<» and “I”. it holds «b» which fails to match “c”. the new value stored in the first backreference would be used. that's perfectly fine. Because of the laziness. There is a clear difference between «([abc]+)» and «([abc])+». the previously saved match is overwritten. The regex engine also takes note that it is now inside the first pair of capturing parentheses. The position in the regex is advanced to «[^>]».62 Looking Inside The Regex Engine Let's see how the regex engine applies the above regex to the string “Testing <B><I>bold italic</I></B> text”. The next token is «[A-Z]». «<» matches the third „<” in the string. The next token is a dot. the first regex will put „cab” into the first backreference. „B” is stored. Repetition and Backreferences As I mentioned in the above inside look. But this did not happen here. the previous value was overwritten. so „b” remains. «>» matches „>”. A complete match has been found: „<B><I>bold italic</I></B>”. The second time „a” and the third time „b”. This fails to match at “I”. Again. repeated by a lazy star. Note that the token the backreference. In this case. This prompts the regex engine to store what was matched inside them into the first backreference. The dot matches the second „<” in the string. These do not match. The engine has now arrived at the second «<» in the regex. „c” was stored. the plus caused the pair of parentheses to repeat three times. This match fails. The star is still lazy. However. The last token in the regex. The position in the string remains at “>”. and the second “<” in the string. The first time. the regex engine does not permanently substitute backreferences in the regular expression. This does not match “I”. while the second regex will only store „b”. so the engine again backtracks. so the engine backtracks again. this is not a problem. It will use the last match saved into the backreference each time it needs to be used. Every time the engine arrives at the backreference. and position in the regex is advanced to «>». the regex engine will initially skip this token. taking note that it should backtrack in case the remainder of the regex fails. Obvious when you look at a . it will read the value that was stored. The first token in the regex is the literal «<». «[A-Z]» matches „B”. The engine arrives again at «\1». because of another star. These match. The next token is «/». «B» matches „B”. The regex engine will traverse the string until it can match at the first „<” in the string.

always double check that you are really capturing what you want. but a common cause of difficulty with regular expressions nonetheless. it is treated as a literal character. doubled words such as “the the” easily creep in. When you put a round bracket in a character class. „b”. The \1 in regex like «(a)[\1b]» will be interpreted as an octal escape in most regex flavors. So this regex will match an a followed by either «\x01» or a «b». To delete the second word. Using the regex «\b(\w+)\s+\1\b» in your text editor. simply type in “\1” as the replacement text and click the Replace button. Backreferences also cannot be used inside a character class.63 simple example like this one. „(” and „)”. you can easily find them. at least not as metacharacters. Useful Example: Checking for Doubled Words When editing text. . When using backreferences. So the regex «[(a)b]» matches „a”. Parentheses and Backreferences Cannot Be Used Inside Character Classes Round brackets cannot be used inside character classes.

which are numbered from left to right.NET languages. Currently. starting with one. Python's sub() function allows you to reference a named group as “\1” or “\g<name>”. rather than follow the one pioneered by Python.NET framework also support named capture. «(?P<name>group)» captures the match of «group» into the backreference “name”. To reference a capturing group inside the regex. The PHP preg functions offer the same functionality. you can easily reference it by name. In a complex regular expression with many capturing groups. Unfortunately.NET offers two syntaxes to create a capturing group: one using sharp brackets. The regex . Names and Numbers for Capturing Groups Here is where things get a bit ugly. By assigning a name to a capturing group. The numbers can then be used in backreferences to match the same text again in the regular expression. The second syntax is preferable in ASP code. Named Capture with . . As you can see. you can use the two syntactic variations interchangeably. or to use part of the regex match for further processing. use «\k<name>» or «\k'name'».RegularExpressions The regular expression classes of the . Here is an example with two capturing groups in . PCRE and PHP Python's regex module was the first to offer a solution: named capture. In PHP. Again. RegexBuddy supports both Python's and Microsoft's style. and offers named capture using the same syntax. you can reference the named group with the familiar dollar sign syntax: “${name}”. PHP/preg. You can use the pointy bracket flavor and the quoted flavors interchangeably.NET's System. Use Round Brackets for Grouping All modern regular expression engines support capturing groups.Text. the numbering can get a little confusing. since they are based on PCRE. When doing a search-and-replace. and the other using single quotes. the Microsoft developers decided to invent their own syntax.64 12. you can use double-quoted string interpolation with the $regs parameter you passed to pcre_match(): “$regs['name']”. Simply use a name instead of a number between the curly braces. no other regex flavor supports Microsoft's version of named capture. The first syntax is preferable in strings. where the sharp brackets are used for HTML tags. where single quotes may need to be escaped.NET style: «(?<first>group)(?'second'group)». You can reference the contents of the group with the numbered backreference «\1» or the named backreference «(?P=name)». Python and PCRE treat named capturing groups just like unnamed capturing groups. starting with one. PHP. or one of the . The open source PCRE library has followed Python's example. Named Capture with Python. This does not work in PHP. and will convert one flavor of named capture into the other when generating source code snippets for Python. and number both kinds from left to right.

Things are quite a bit more complicated with the . from left to right.65 «(a)(?P<x>b)(c)(?P<y>d)» matches „abcd” as expected.NET framework does number named capturing groups from left to right. or make it non-capturing as in «(?:nocapture)». when using . just assume that named groups do not get numbered at all. If you do a search-and-replace with this regex and the replacement “\1\2\3\4”. Either give a group a name. . Then the named groups «(?<x>b)» and «(?<y>d)» get their numbers. The . To keep things compatible across regex flavors. you will get “abcd”. in this case: three. The regex «(a)(?<x>b)(c)(?<y>d)» again matches „abcd”. So the unnamed groups «(a)» and «(c)» get numbered first. However. and reference them by name exclusively. from one till four. Easy and logical. I strongly recommend that you do not mix named and unnamed capturing groups at all. you will get “acbd”. but numbers them after all the unnamed groups have been numbered. if you do a search-and-replace with “$1$2$3$4” as the replacement.NET's regex support. To make things simple. Non-capturing groups are more efficient.NET framework. continuing from the unnamed groups. Probably not what you expected. starting at one. since the regex engine does not need to keep track of their matches. All four groups were numbered from left to right.

You can turn off a mode by preceding it with a minus sign. . (?i-sm) turns on case insensitivity. You have probably noticed the resemblance between the modifier span and the non-capturing group «(?:group)». Most programming languages allow you to pass option flags when constructing the regex object. precede each of their letters with a minus sign. Older regex flavors usually apply the option to the entire regular expression. In this mode. (?i) turns on case insensitivity. «(?i)ignorecase(?-i)casesensitive(?i)ignorecase» is equivalent to «(?i)ignorecase(?i:casesensitive)ignorecase». the handy String. in Perl. no matter where you placed it. E.matches() method in Java does not take a parameter for matching options like Pattern. In this mode. Modifier Spans Instead of using two modifiers.compile() does. while (?ism) turns on all three options. the dot matches newlines. It is obvious that the modifier span does not create a backreference. and one to turn it off.g. but not “teST” or “TEST”. Most tools that support regular expressions have checkboxes or similar controls that you can use to turn these modes on or off. Not all regex flavors support this. The regex «(?i)te(?-i)st» should match „test” and „TEst”. E. E. /s enables "single-line mode".compile(“regex”. If you insert the modifier (?ism) in the middle of the regex.66 13. Specifying Modes Inside The Regular Expression Sometimes. You can quickly test this. the modifier only applies to the part of the regex to the right of the modifier. the non-capturing group is a modifier span that does not change any modifiers. the caret and dollar match before and after newlines in the subject string. while Pattern.g. To turn off several modes. and turns on multi-line mode. Regex Matching Modes All regular expression engines discussed in this tutorial support the following three matching modes: • • • /i makes the regex match case insensitive. you use a modifier span. /m enables "multi-line mode". Technically. the tool or language does not provide the ability to specify matching options. Many regex flavors have additional modes or options that have single letter equivalents.g. turns off single-line mode. m/regex/i turns on case insensitivity. In that situation.g. E. Turning Modes On and Off for Only Part of The Regular Expression Modern regex flavors allow you to apply modifiers to only part of the regular expression. The latest versions of all tools and languages discussed in this book do. Pattern. one to turn an option on.CASE_INSENSITIVE) does the same in Java. you can add a mode modifier to the start of the regex. but these differ widely.

the 10th iteration is expanded to „10. It will backtrack to the point where «^(.”. In fact.8. they do not change the fact that the regex engine will backtrack to try all possible permutations of the regular expression in case no match can be found. again trying all possible combinations for the 9th. Since there is still no P. giving up the last match of the comma.11”. The next token is again the dot.2. subsequently expanding it to „9. and gradually expand the match as the engine backtracks through the regex to find an overall match. they can change the overall regex match. the same story starts with the 9th iteration. the regex engine will backtrack. this regex looks like it should do the job just fine. „9.11.”. Since there is no comma after the 13th field. 10th. It does not.10.2. the engine backtracks to the 8th iteration. The dot matches the comma! However. Catastrophic Backtracking Recently I got a complaint from a customer that EditPad Pro hung (i. The dot matches a comma. But it does not give up there. Atomic Grouping and Possessive Quantifiers When discussing the repetition operators or quantifiers. Let's say the string is “1. At first sight.5.*?. A lazy quantifier will first repeat the token as few times as required.*?. At that point.7. the P checks if the 12th field indeed starts with P.”. First. Continuously failing. But between each expansion. The regex engine now checks whether the 13th field starts with a P.”. and gradually give up matches as the engine backtracks to find an overall match. expanding the match of the 10th iteration to „10.6.*?. The problem rears its ugly head when the 12th field does not start with a P. the comma does not match the “1” in the 12th field.4. It backtracks to the 10th iteration. it stopped responding) when trying to find lines in a comma-delimited text file where the 12th item on a line started with a “P”.» has consumed „11. „9.6. I explained the difference between greedy and lazy repetition. so the dot continues until the 11th iteration of «. and the {11} skips the first 11 fields. this is exactly what will happen when the 12th field indeed starts with a P.67 14.11.12. the regex engine can no longer match the 11th iteration of «.4.10.){11}P». However.” as well as „11.”.13”. Finally.”. The customer was using the regexp «^(.12. When the 9th iteration consumes „9.5.11. Greediness and laziness determine the order in which the regex engine tries the possible permutations of the regex pattern. there are more possiblities to be tried.12.3.11. Because greediness and laziness change the order in which permutations are tried.10. the 10th could match just „11.9.10. or even crash as the regex engine runs out of memory trying to remember all backtracking positions.3. Because of the double repetition (star inside {11}).”.10. A greedy quantifier will first try to repeat the token as many times as possible. . The lazy dot and comma match a single comma-delimited field.”.9.){11}» had consumed „1. and 11th iterations.e. let's see why backtracking can lead to problems. This causes software like EditPad Pro to stop responding.10.».12. this leads to a catastrophic amount of backtracking.12.7. Reaching the end of the string again. You can already see the root of the problem: the part of the regex (the dot) matching the contents of the field also matches the delimiter (the comma).8.*?.11. You get the idea: the possible number of combinations that the regex engine will try for each line where the 12th field does not start with a P is huge.

){11}P». Similarly.0 and later. make absolutely sure that there is only one way to match the same match. Perl supports it starting with version 5. the engine has to backtrack to the regex token before the group (the caret in our example). It would match the minimum number of matches and never expand the match because backtracking is not allowed.*?.\r\n]*. If the P cannot be found.){11})P».NET support atomic grouping. the regex must retry the entire regex at the next position in the string. and only supported by the latest versions of most regex flavors. Atomic Grouping and Possessive Quantifiers Recent regex flavors have introduced two additional solutions to this problem: atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers. In the above example. Using atomic grouping. Possessive quantifiers are a limited form of atomic grouping with a cleaner notation. allowing the regex engine to fail faster. «x++» is the same as «(?>x+)». Python does not support atomic grouping. you can be sure that the regex engine will try all those combinations.6.n}+». and each time the «[^. the above regex becomes «^(?>(. and PCRE version 4 and later. But it will backtrack only 11 times. Their purpose is to prevent backtracking. Everything between (?>) is treated as one single token by the regex engine. you should use atomic grouping to prevent the regex engine from backtracking. as do all versions of RegexBuddy. In that case. forcing the regex engine to the previous one of the 11 iterations immediately.\r\n]» is not able to expand beyond the comma.68 Preventing Catastrophic Backtracking The solution is simple. Tool and Language Support for Atomic Grouping and Possessive Quantifiers Atomic grouping is a recent addition to the regex scene. once the regex engine leaves the group.4. . The latest versions of EditPad Pro and PowerGREP support both atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers. So the regex becomes: «^([^. But that is not always possible in such a straightforward manner. the solution is to be more exact about what we want to match. The fields must not contain comma's. If repeating the inner loop 4 times and the outer loop 7 times results in the same overall match as repeating the inner loop 6 times and the outer loop 2 times. We want to match 11 commadelimited fields. All versions of . though the JDK documentation uses the term “independent group” rather than “atomic group”. «x?+» and «x{m. as do recent versions of PCRE and PHP's pgreg functions. no backtracking can take place once the regex engine has found a match for the group. Note that you cannot make a lazy quantifier possessive. the engine will still backtrack. without trying further options. If there is no token before the group. possessive quantifiers are only supported by the Java JDK 1. At this time. we could easily reduce the amount of backtracking to a very low level by better specifying what we wanted. The Java supports it starting with JDK version 1.2. To make a quantifier possessive. When nesting repetition operators. In our example. Because the entire group is one token. you can use «x*+». place a plus after it.4. If backtracking is required.

Failure is declared after 30 attempts to match the caret.7. Note that atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers can alter the outcome of the regular expression match. so the dot is initially skipped. no backtracking is allowed. If the regex will be used in a tight loop in an application. Again.9. That is.6. using simple repetition. greedy repetition of the star is faster than a backtracking lazy dot.){11})P». The star is not possessive. The caret matches at the start of the string and the engine enters the atomic group. or process huge amounts of data.){11})P» is applied to “1. With the former regex. The previous token is an atomic group.13”. which fails. With simple repetition. In the latter case. the regex engine did not cross the closing round bracket of the atomic group.4. you really should use atomic grouping and/or possessive quantifiers whenever possible. often it is not.11. «\d+» will match the entire string. Now comes the difference.9. «\d++6» will not match at all. While «x[^x]*+x» and «x(?>[^x]*)x» fail faster than «x[^x]*x». and the match fails. everything happened just like in the original.6. and the comma matches too.10. If the final x in the regex cannot be matched.69 Atomic Grouping Inside The Regex Engine Let's see how «^(?>(. The engine now tries to match «P» to the “1” in the 12th field. then atomic grouping may make a difference. They do not speed up success. and just one attempt to match the atomic group. so the engine backtracks. Still. all backtracking information is discarded and the group is now considered a single token.”. Now.10.){11})P». «{11}» causes further repetition until the atomic group has matched „1.3. if you are smart about combined repetition. The most efficient regex for our problem at hand would be «^(?>((?>[^. rather than after 30 attempts to match the caret and a huge number of attempts to try all combinations of both quantifiers in the regex.*?. Because the group is atomic.2. and declares failure. When nesting quantifiers like in the above example. If possessive quantifiers are available. you can reduce clutter by writing «^(?>([^. This shows again that understanding how the regex engine works on the inside will enable you to avoid many pitfalls and craft efficient regular expressions that match exactly what you want. When To Use Atomic Grouping or Possessive Quantifiers Atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers speed up failure by eliminating backtracking. That is what atomic grouping and possessive quantifiers are for: efficiency by disallowing backtracking. the cause of this is that the token «\d» that is repeated can also match the delimiter «6». only failure.\r\n]*). the regex engine backtracks once for each character matched by the star. so the engine backtracks to the dot. troublesome regular expression. the engine backtracks until the 6 can be matched. That's right: backtracking is allowed here. So far. But the comma does not match “1”.2. the amount of time wasted with pointless backtracking increases in a linear fashion to the length of the string.4. Sometimes this is desirable. so the group's entire match is discarded and the engine backtracks further to the caret. The dot matches „1”. the amount of time wasted increases exponentially and will very quickly exhaust the capabilities of your computer. the engine leaves the atomic group. The engine now tries to match the caret at the next position in the string. This fails. The star is lazy. «P» failed to match.5. The engine walks through the string until the end. and is not immediately enclosed by an atomic group.5. If you are simply doing a search in a text editor. since possessive. .3.8.\r\n]*+. you often can avoid the problem without atomic grouping as in the example above. you will not earn back the extra time to type in the characters for the atomic grouping.11.7.8. With combined repetition. the increase in speed is minimal. «\d+6» will match „123456” in “123456789”.12.

They are also called “zero-width assertions”. At this point. The engine takes note that it is inside a lookahead construct now. The position in the string is now the void behind the string. or that would get very longwinded without them. (Note that this is not the case with lookbehind. The engine notes that the regex inside the lookahead failed. with the opening bracket followed by a question mark and an explanation point. The positive lookahead construct is a pair of round brackets. That is why they are called “assertions”. let's see how the engine applies «q(?!u)» to the string “Iraq”. «q» matches „q”. which supports lookahead but not lookbehind. They do not consume characters in the string. The first token in the regex is the literal «q». Regex Engine Internals First. Let's try applying the same regex to “quit”. and start and end of word anchors that I already explained. The exception is JavaScript.) Any valid regular expression can be used inside the lookahead. this will cause the engine to traverse the string until the „q” in the string is matched. You can use any regular expression inside the lookahead. it is done with the regex inside the lookahead. If it contains capturing parentheses. So it is not included in the count towards numbering the backreferences. The next character is the “u”. with the opening bracket followed by a question mark and an equals sign. If you want to store the match of the regex inside a backreference. Note that the lookahead itself does not create a backreference. we have the trivial regex «u». Positive lookahead works just the same. this means that the lookahead has successfully matched at the current position. As we already know. Lookarounds allow you to create regular expressions that are impossible to create without them. So the next token is «u». and discards the regex match. The difference is that lookarounds will actually match characters. The engine advances to the next character: “i”. . like this: «(?=(regex))». I already explained why you cannot use a negated character class to match a “q” not followed by a “u”. Positive and Negative Lookahead Negative lookahead is indispensable if you want to match something not followed by something else. When explaining character classes. and begins matching the regex inside the lookahead. These match. All regex flavors discussed in this book support lookaround. «q(?=u)» matches a q that is followed by a u. The other way around will not work. The next token is the «u» inside the lookahead. This does not match the void behind the string. The engine notes success. This causes the engine to step back in the string to “u”. the entire regex has matched. I will explain why below. these are called “lookaround”. because the lookahead will already have discarded the regex match by the time the backreference is to be saved. you have to put capturing parentheses around the regex inside the lookahead. but then give up the match and only return the result: match or no match. However. The next token is the lookahead. Negative lookahead provides the solution: «q(?!u)». but only assert whether a match is possible or not. Lookahead and Lookbehind Zero-Width Assertions Perl 5 introduced two very powerful constructs: “lookahead” and “lookbehind”. Inside the lookahead. The negative lookahead construct is the pair of round brackets. and „q” is returned as the match. without making the u part of the match. They are zero-width just like the start and end of line. Collectively. Because the lookahead is negative.70 15. the backreferences will be saved.

It matches one character: the first „b” in the string. In this case. «b» matches „b”. and notices that the „a” can be matched there. The engine again steps back one character. the successful match inside it causes the lookahead to fail. and put a token after it. Again. “less than” symbol and an equals sign. Again. But «i» cannot match “u”. Since there are no other permutations of this regex. If you want to find a word not ending with an “s”. Positive and Negative Lookbehind Lookbehind has the same effect. not only at the start. Negative lookbehind is written as «(?<!text)». Because it is zero-width. the engine has to start again at the beginning. The lookbehind continues to fail until the regex reaches the “m” in the string. It tells the regex engine to temporarily step backwards in the string.) Again. It finds a “t”. «(?<=a)b» (positive lookbehind) matches the „b” (and only the „b”) in „cab”. All remaining attempts will fail as well. Since «q» cannot match anywhere else. to check if the text inside the lookbehind can be matched there. because there are no more q's in the string. with the opening bracket followed by a question mark. but does not match “bed” or “debt”. so the engine continues with «i». the engine reports failure. So this match attempt fails. and the entire regex has been matched successfully. the lookbehind tells the engine to step back one character. The engine steps back. (Note that a negative lookbehind would have succeeded here. I have made the lookahead positive. The next character is the first “b” in the string. The engine starts with the lookbehind and the first character in the string. to make sure you understand the implications of the lookahead. So the lookbehind fails. which cannot match here. the current position in the string remains at the “m”. Let's apply «q(?=u)i» to “quit”. The next character is the second “a” in the string. so the engine steps back from “i” in the string to “u”. using an exclamation point instead of an equals sign. Important Notes About Lookbehind The good news is that you can use lookbehind anywhere in the regex. and see if an “a” can be matched there.71 Because the lookahead is negative. you could use «\b\w+(?<!s)\b». so the positive lookbehind fails again. More Regex Engine Internals Let's apply «(?<=a)b» to “thingamabob”. the “h”. The positive lookbehind matches. The next token is «b». the engine temporarily steps back one character to check if an “a” can be found there. To lookahead was successful. but works backwards. The engine cannot step back one character because there are no characters before the “t”. «(?<!a)b» matches a “b” that is not preceded by an “a”. the match from the lookahead must be discarded. The engine steps back and finds out that „a” satisfies the lookbehind. and finds out that the “m” does not match «a». The construct for positive lookbehind is «(?<=text)»: a pair of round brackets. Let's take one more look inside. This is definitely not the same as . and the engine starts again at the next character. It will not match “cab”. «q» matches „q” and «u» matches „u”. but will match the „b” (and only the „b”) in “bed” or “debt”. using negative lookbehind.

PHP. (Hint: «\b» matches between the apostrophe and the “s”). I will leave it up to you to figure out why. has a double negation (the \W in the negated character class). The string must be traversed from left to right. The correct regex without using lookbehind is «\b\w*[^s\W]\b» (star instead of plus. the semantics of applying a regular expression backwards are currently not well-defined. the regular expression engine needs to be able to figure out how many steps to step back before checking the lookbehind. The latter will also not match single-letter words like “a” or “I”.NET framework can apply regular expressions backwards. plus alternation with strings of different lengths. You can use alternation. but only if all options in the alternation have the same length. This means you can still not use the star or plus. But each string in the alternation must still be of fixed length.72 «\b\w+[^s]\b». Not to regex engines. including those used by Perl 5 and Python. the .0 of the . EditPad Pro and PowerGREP. You can use any regex of which the length of the match can be predetermined. and \W in the character class). Microsoft has promised to resolve this in version 2. These regex flavors recognize the fact that finite repetition can be rewritten as an alternation of strings with different. though. which works correctly. I find the lookbehind easier to understand. Personally. plus finite repetition. lookbehind is a valuable addition to the regular expression syntax. The reason is that regular expressions do not work backwards. but you can use the question mark and the curly braces with the max parameter specified.4. the former will match „John” and the latter „John'” (including the apostrophe). Finally. The bad news is that you cannot use just any regex inside a lookbehind. RegexBuddy. including infinite repetition. This includes PCRE. but fixed lengths. Finally. Some regex flavors support the above. inside lookbehind. This means you can use literal text and character classes. I recommend you use only fixed-length strings. some more advanced flavors support the above. Technically. only allow fixed-length strings.NET framework. Double negations tend to be confusing to humans. When applied to “John's”. so only literals and character classes can be used. Until that happens. The last regex. Therefore. However. The only regex flavor that I know of that currently supports this is Sun's regex package in the JDK 1. and will allow you to use any regex. Even with these limitations. You cannot use repetition or optional items. . many regex flavors. JavaScript does not support lookbehind at all. Therefore. alternation and character classes inside lookbehind.

the engine has no other choice but to restart at the beginning of the regex. After that. the word we found must contain the word “cat”. reducing the number of characters matched by «\w*». Actually. at the next character position in the string. the second «\w*» will consume the remaining letters. because lookaround is a bit confusing. Easy! Here's how this works. in the 6letter word. “dog” or “mouse”. The lookahead is zero-width. If not. which I introduced in detail in the previous topic. Matching a word containing “cat” is equally easy: «\b\w*cat\w*\b». I would like to give you another. we get: «(?=\b\w{6}\b)\b\w*cat\w*\b». Because we already know that a 6-letter word can be matched at the current position. Easy enough. We just specify all the options and hump them together using alternation: «cat\w{3}|\wcat\w{2}|\w{2}cat\w|\w{3}cat». This sub-regex. is a very powerful concept. To make this clear. the lookahead will fail. Unfortunately. the last «\b» in the regex is guaranteed to match where the second «\b» inside the lookahead matched. causing the engine to advance character by character until the next 6-letter word. where the lookahead will fail. So when the regex inside the lookahead has found the 6-letter word. matches only when the current character position in the string is at the start of a 6-letter word in the string. Combining the two. the current position in the string is still at the beginning of the 6-letter word. At each character position in the string where the regex is attempted. the engine will first attempt the regex inside the positive lookahead. until «cat» can be matched. and the engine will continue trying the regex from the start at the next character position in the string. Second. it is often underused by people new to regular expressions. So if you have a regex in which a lookahead is followed by another piece of regex. . we know that «\b» matches and that the first «\w*» will match 6 times. At this position will the regex engine attempt the remainder of the regex. Matching a 6-letter word is easy with «\b\w{6}\b». Our double-requirement-regex has matched successfully. The engine will then backtrack. The confusing part is that the lookaround is zero-width. we can match this without lookaround. First. a bit more practical example. Let's say we want to find a word that is six letters long and contains the three subsequent letters “cat”. But this method gets unwieldy if you want to find any word between 6 and 12 letters long containing either “cat”. If «cat» can be successfully matched. Lookaround to The Rescue In this example. and therefore the lookahead. If «cat» cannot be matched. we basically have two requirements for a successful match.73 16. or a lookbehind is preceded by another piece of regex. if any. then the regex will traverse part of the string twice. Testing The Same Part of The String for More Than One Requirement Lookaround. This is at the second letter in the 6-letter word we just found. we want a word that is 6 letters long.

This is not a problem if you are just doing a search in a text editor. instead of the entire word. But we know that in a successful match. So we can optimize this to «\w{0. So we have «(?=\b\w{6}\b)\w{0. there's no need to put it inside the lookahead.3}cat\w*». which we can easily combine using a lookahead: « \b(?=\w{6. Since it is zero-width. . “dog” or “mouse” into the first backreference. The lazy asterisk would find a successful match sooner. the resulting match would be the start of a 6-letter word containing “cat”. “dog” or “mouse”? Again we have two requirements. it would still cause the regex engine to try matching “cat” at the last two letters. As it stands. Since it is zero-width itself. If we omitted the «\w*». we can remove them. once you get the hang of it.74 Optimizing Our Solution While the above regex works just fine. You can discover these optimizations by yourself if you carefully examine the regex and follow how the regex engine applies it.12}\b)\w{0. minor. and therefore does not change the result returned by the regex engine. But optimizing things is a good idea if this regex will be used repeatedly and/or on large chunks of data in an application you are developing. at the last single letter. Note that making the asterisk lazy would not have optimized this sufficiently. One last. Remember that the lookahead discards its match. I said the third and last «\b» are guaranteed to match. as I did above. and even at one character beyond the 6-letter word. Though the last «\w*» is also guaranteed to match. there can never be more than 3 letters before “cat”. Very easy.3}».3}cat\w*».9}(cat|dog|mouse)\w*». So the final regex is: «\b(?=\w{6}\b)\w{0. what would you use to find any word between 6 and 12 letters long containing either “cat”. This regex will also put “cat”. we cannot remove it because it adds characters to the regex match. so it does not contribute to the match returned by the regex engine. up to and including “cat”. leaving: «(?=\b\w{6}\b)\w*cat\w*». optimization involves the first «\b». but if a 6-letter word does not contain “cat”. A More Complex Problem So. it is not the most optimal solution. it will match 6 letters and then backtrack. But we can optimize the first «\w*».

Substitute «wanted». So inside the lookahead we need to look for a series of unspecified characters that do not match the start of a section anywhere in the series. the star will also stop at the start of a section.)*?stop)». However. I used a lazy star to make the regex more efficient. Note that these two rules will only yield success if the string or file searched through is properly translated into sections. we need to use «. this will not work. If “wanted” occurs only once inside the section. The final regular expression becomes: «wanted(?=((?!start). Lookbehind must be of fixed length. we must be able to match «stop» after matching «wanted». at which point stop cannot be matched and thus the regex will fail. Effectively. So we need a way to match „wanted” without matching the rest of the section.*?stop)». That is. and end with the section stop. However. The reason is that this regular expression consumes the entire section. Finding Matches Only Inside a Section of The String Lookahead allows you to create regular expression patterns that are impossible to create without it. The star is obviously not of fixed length. Since we do not know in advance how many characters there will be between “start” and “wanted”.*?». So we have to resort to using lookahead only. «start» and «stop» with the regexes of your choice. we must not be able to match «start» between matching «wanted» and matching «stop». we can do without lookahead.*?stop» would do the trick. we need to match the end of the section. and «start» as the regex matching the start of the section. we repeat zero or more times with the star. To keep things simple. When we apply the regex again to the same string or file. First we match the string we want. This is possible with lookahead. replacing a certain word with another. and then we test if it is inside the proper section. it will continue after „stop”. If we could. You may be tempted to use a combination of lookbehind and lookahead like in «(?<=start. we found a match before a section rather than inside a section. After this. The regex engine will refuse to compile this regular expression. each match of «start» must be followed exactly by one match of «stop». A title tag starts with «<H[1-6]» and . the lazy star will continue to repeat until the end of the section is reached. Example: Search and Replace within Header Tags Using the above generic regular expression. but only inside title tags. because lookahead is zero-width. The dot and negative lookahead match any character that is not the first character of the start of a section.75 17. The final regular expression will be in the form of «wanted(?=insidesection)». this will not work if “wanted” occurs more than once inside a single section. I will use «wanted» as a substitute for the regular expression that we are trying to match inside the section. If not.*?wanted.)*?stop». this is written as: «((?!start). not after „wanted”. Second. One example is matching a particular regex only inside specific sections of the string or file searched through. «start. The entire section is included in the regex match. you can easily build a regex to do a search and replace on HTML files. In a regex. This. Because of the negative lookahead inside the star. and «stop» as the regex matching the end of the section. How do we know if we matched «wanted» inside a section? First.*?)wanted(?=. we found a match after a section rather than inside a section.

So the regex becomes «wanted(?=((?!\<H[1-6]).76 ends with «</H[1-6]>». But lookahead is what we need here. You may have noticed that I escaped the < of the opening tag in the final regex.)*?</H[1-6]>)». I did that because some regex flavors interpret «(?!<» as identical to «(?<!». . or negative lookbehind. Escaping the < takes care of the problem. I omitted the closing > in the start tag to allow for attributes.

the stored position for «\G» is reset to the start of the string. The position is not associated with any regular expression. specify the continuation modifier /c.. the only place in the string where «\G» matches is after the second t. The 3rd attempt yields „s” and the 4th attempt matches the second „t” in the string. This means that you can use «\G» to make a regex continue in a subject string where another regex left off. you could parse an HTML file in the following fashion: while ($string =~ m/</g) { if ($string =~ m/\GB>/c) { } elsif ($string =~ m/\GI>/c) { } else { } } # Bold # Italics # .. rather than the end of the previous match.etc. This way you can parse the tags in the file in the order they appear in the file.. the position where the last match ended is a “magical” value that is remembered separately for each string variable. Applying «\G\w» to the string “test string” matches „t”. All this is very useful to make several regular expressions work together.g. This is the case with EditPad Pro.. When a match is found. «\G» matches at the start of the string in the way «\A» does. where «\G» matches at the position of the text cursor. During the first match attempt. The result is that «\G» matches at the end of the previous match result only when you do not move the text cursor between two searches. \G Magic with Perl In Perl. All in all. and move the text cursor to the end of the match. rather than at the end of the previous match result.77 18. this makes a lot of sense in the context of a text editor. If a match attempt fails. During the fifth attempt. and the regexes inside the loop check which tag we found. so the match fails. Applying it again matches „e”. End of The Previous Match vs Start of The Match Attempt With some regex flavors or tools. . «\G» matches at the start of the match attempt. To avoid this. E. But that position is not followed by a word character. Continuing at The End of The Previous Match The anchor «\G» matches at the position where the previous match ended. without having to write a single big regex that matches all tags you are interested in. EditPad Pro will select the match. The fifth attempt fails. The regex in the while loop searches for the tag's opening bracket.

78 \G in Other Programming Langauges This flexibility is not available with most other programming languages. «\G» will then match at this position.g. The Matcher is strictly associated with a single regular expression and a single subject string. in Java. E. What you can do though is to add a line of code to make the match attempt of the second Matcher start where the match of the first Matcher ended. . the position for «\G» is remembered by the Matcher object.

the if and then parts are clearly separated. You may omit the else part. If you want to use alternation. Because the lookahead has its own parentheses. immediately followed by the then part. you will have to group the then or else together using parentheses.79 19. If the if part evaluates to true. the else part is attempted instead. the syntax becomes «(?(?=regex)then|else)». and the vertical bar with it. For the then and else. like in «(?(?=condition)(then1|then2|then3)|(else1|else2|else3))». This part can be followed by a vertical bar and the else part. there is no need to use parentheses around the then and else parts. If-Then-Else Conditionals in Regular Expressions A special construct «(?ifthen|else)» allows you to create conditional regular expressions. you can use the lookahead and lookbehind constructs. The opening bracket must be followed by a question mark. then the regex engine will attempt to match the then or else part (depending on the outcome of the lookahead) at the same position where the if was attempted. then the regex engine will attempt to match the then part. you can use any regular expression. Otherwise. For the if part. Otherwise. Using positive lookahead. If you use a lookahead as the if part. . immediately followed by the if part. The syntax consists of a pair of round brackets. Remember that the lookaround constructs do not consume any characters.

I guess you will agree that regular expressions can quickly become rather cryptic. The regex engine ignores everything after the «(?#» until the first closing round bracket./. I could clarify the regex to match a valid date by writing it as «(?#year)(19|20)\d\d[/. such as RegexBuddy.g. Now it is instantly obvious that this regex matches a date in yyyy-mm-dd format. as long as it does not contain a closing round bracket.](?#day)(0[1-9]|[12][0-9]|3[01])». Adding Comments to Regular Expressions If you have worked through the entire tutorial. Some software. Therefore. The syntax is «(?#comment)» where “comment” is be whatever you want. .80 20. many modern regex flavors allow you to insert comments into regexes. enabling the right comment in the right spot to make a complex regular expression much easier to understand.](?#month)(0[1-9]|1[012])[. That makes the comments really stand out. EditPad Pro and PowerGREP can apply syntax coloring to regular expressions while you write them. E.

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